Over the last year or so I have input various times into teaching and learning development sessions run by the institution for new and existing members of staff. My contribution has always been sought when the topic under discussion is ‘learning outcomes’ (LOs). Often these sessions, particularly for new lecturers, focus on why LOs are important and how to write them. The session content and format also usually follow closely the standard guidance offered by most institutions. This, of course, is not a criticism of these sessions. There is limited time for staff to attend these sessions and they must cover the basic essentials of what staff need to know to fulfil their teaching role and duties.
However, the point that I am always keen to stress, and for which there is usually not enough time to discuss, is that a teacher’s work with LOs should not stop once the LOs are written. Writing LOs, I would argue, is only the first step – how do you then work with them to ensure that the LOs you have written are used by, and useful for, students to support and enhance their learning?
At the University of Leicester, we have developed a ‘Working with Learning Outcomes’ online resource for academic staff in which we are able to dig into this question to some extent and encourage staff to give further consideration to how they work with LOs after they have written them. I will briefly review here some of the points we raise in the resource (and a few others we’ve thought of since then) in the hope that it may help to inform the LO-related practices of other teachers:
When should you refer to the LOs?
Often tutors point out the LOs of a module or course to students in the beginning or introductory session, and then do not refer to them again. In our research with students, some told us that they might not start to really understand the LOs until they have done some studying within the module. For some, LOs do not really make sense until the module is completed and students have covered all the content referred to in the LOs. It is worth considering then when you think your students will fully understand the LOs that you have written. The answer to this question may, quite rightly, not be ‘at the beginning of the module’. Yet this is often when students typically have most interaction with the LOs. Consequently, if LOs are to play any meaningful role within the learning process, you might want to think about when you should be referring to them – will it be more beneficial for your students if you refer to them at various points in the module instead of just at the beginning?
How do you want your students to use their LOs?
Again, if LOs are to be a meaningful, rather than tokenistic, part of students’ learning experiences, you might want to think about how you want your students to use them – or how they could be used in meaningful ways by your students. For example, in our research with academic staff, some told us that they encourage their students to view their LOs as useful employability-related resources, i.e. the LOs provide a framework through which students can talk to potential employers about the skills that they have developed and the knowledge that they have gained during their course.
How are you specifying levels of learning in your LOs?
Most LO-related guidance encourages teachers to use Bloom’s taxonomy and its associated active verbs when writing LOs. The assumption is that these active verbs help to clearly convey to students what they are expected to be able to do at the end of the learning period. However, some students in our research indicated that they may struggle at times to understand the depth and level of learning that they are required to engage in from their LOs. This seems very plausible when you consider that all of the activities (or active verbs) associated with Blooms’ taxonomy, e.g. analyse, compare, justify, explain, describe, etc, can be done to varying degrees and levels. One example given in our resource to address this potential situation is the linking of the module’s marking criteria to its LOs. This would help to show students that LOs can be achieved at different levels, and it would also convey the level of work that they need to engage in if they want to achieve high marks.
Is there still room for flexibility in the learning journey?
There are some whose arguments suggest that a potential consequence of a LOs approach in higher education is that students will passively accept LOs as the limits to their learning, and then demand further LOs to guide their studies rather than take responsibility for independently directing some of their own work. This would indeed be a sad situation if it occurred. However, many students in our research were keen to stress that they did not want LOs to become the sole focus of their learning. They find LOs very useful as guides for their learning, but they still want to feel that they have the freedom and flexibility to direct their learning in ways meaningful to them. So, you might want to consider how you can work with LOs in ways that do not restrict or narrow students’ learning? Do your LOs convey to students the opportunities that they may have to extend and direct their own learning?
A few other final brief ideas that you might want to think further about:
Involving students in writing LOs
Many proponents of a LOs approach argue that LOs are indicative of a student-centred paradigm in which the focus is on what students are learning rather than what teachers are teaching. In a previous blog post I question whether LOs can really be considered student-centred if students have no role or responsibility in developing them. Without any active student role in the development process, LOs could still be viewed as teacher-centred in that they are what the teacher has developed to then simply hand down to the students. At the University of Leicester, we are currently working on a project that is exploring how students can be effectively engaged in the process of developing their learning outcomes, and evaluating the effect of such engagement.
Using LOs to support other learning and teaching activities
In another blog post I discuss how LOs could be used to support activities such as student self-assessment and reflection, and module evaluation.
Going beyond the ‘rules’ of LOs, e.g. using taxonomies other than Bloom
Creating LOs that are based on developing students’ values, attitudes and beliefs, not just content knowledge
If you have any other thoughts/ideas about how teachers and students can work with LOs, please do get in touch – and comments on any of the points raised above will be most welcome indeed.